"God’s Electing Love and Mercy": 19th Century Presbyterians and the Question of Infant Salvation

Dr. Miles Smith IV is an adjunct instructor at Liberty University Online. His teaching generally focuses on the Nineteenth Century United States, but he also enjoys lecturing on Europe and Latin America.

Ecumenical movements in North American Protestantism during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have often led Presbyterians to rhetorically negotiate the sacramental understandings associated with the Westminster Standards. Perhaps more ominously, Reformed thinkers and pastors have downplayed historic Reformed understandings traditionally meant to bring solace—both pastoral and sacramental—to the people of God.

People in the pews of Reformed churches in 2019 might be quick to assume that their forbears were stern, or perhaps formalistic, or too tied to the Standards to be missionally or pastorally effective. What they are less likely to assume is the remarkable catholicity of historic Reformed tradition, and the rich theology offered to those in grief. Remarkable advances in medicine and associated technology has to some degree lessened the immediate effects of the curse, but death still roams human existence. Tragically, death often claims infant children of Christian parents.

The need to declare the capaciousness of God’s grace typified Presbyterian polemics and preaching in the nineteenth century. William D. Smith’s What is Calvinism? addressed Presbyterians’ belief in the salvation of infants directly. He noted that a popular slander against Reformed theology leveled by Wesleyans was the idea that human depravity automatically consigned infants to hell. Smith hotly rejected that idea entirely.  Reformed Christians believed that infants were born with the same damning sin nature as adults, but nonetheless they loudly “believed in the salvation of infants.” “It was not because we believed them holy, and without sin; but, because we believed they were sinful, and would be saved, through the imputed righteousness of Christ.” Smith rightly charged Wesleyans evangelists with obfuscating statements in the Westminster Standards regarding Presbyterianism’s belief in God’s grace to infants.[1]

Charles Hodge argued passionately that not only were the infants of Christian saved, but all infants were. “All who die in infancy are saved. This is inferred from what the Bible teaches of the analogy between Adam and Christ.” To those who demurred, he wrote:

We have no right to put any limit on these general terms, except what the Bible itself places upon them. The Scriptures nowhere exclude any class of infants, baptized or unbaptized, born in Christian or in heathen lands, of believing or unbelieving parents, from the benefits of the redemption of Christ. All the descendants of Adam, except Christ, are under condemnation; all the descendants of Adam, except those of whom it is expressly revealed that they cannot inherit the kingdom of God, are saved.

Hodge’s argument did not create sensation in the era. His argument for accepting Roman Catholic baptism proved more controversial at the time, especially with his southern rival, James Henley Thornwell.[2]

Perhaps the most famous southern divine, Thornwell’s famous admonition to treat children as unregenerate until they publicly communed has sometimes been held up as evidence that southern Presbyterians did not believe in infant salvation. The accusation is not entirely unfounded. Thornwell’s ambiguous treatment of baptism often hewed away from historic Calvinism and his fellow southern divines, and his peculiar view of baptism was no exception. Yet even Thornwell believed that infants on some level had a special relationship to the Covenant of Grace.[3]

Church historians’ tendency to treat Thornwell as representative of southern Presbyterianism often overshadowed majority opinion among other religious intellectuals of the time. Thomas Smyth, pastor of Charleston’s Second Presbyterian Church and a close friend of Thornwell, argued that infant salvation was the historic position of Calvinist churches. Likewise he saw the doctrine as a powerful affirmation of the pastoral and soteriological superiority of Reformed theology. He penned his Solace for Bereaved Parents in 1848, a tome over 300 pages long filled with declarations of God’s grace to infants. His serious scholarly training did not cloud his pastoral purpose. Parental grief was natural, he wrote, and should not be accused of excess, “Your affliction is great. Your heart is left lonely and desolate. Its strings are broken. That joy which had swallowed up all remembrance of the hours of solicitude and pain, is now turned into melancholy sadness.” The joyous “current of affection and gladness which had flowed out upon the object of your regard is turned back upon the soul —its channels are dried up, and its fountain gone.” Smyth understood that “the grief of a bereaved parent can only be known by those who have endured it.” Smyth saw this grief as natural, but believed Calvinism provided substantive hope for an eternal reunification of parent and child. The very aspects of Calvinist eucharistic thought that Roman Catholics and even Lutherans found most objectionable, Smyth saw as announcing the kingdom coming even to the infant dead. [4]

Smyth particularly appealed to the Westminster standards, particularly the Confession of Faith. Twentieth-century Reformed ministers affirm Westminster Confession of Faith 10.3 and its declaration that “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the spirit.” Yet many have tended to caution against presumption that dead infants of covenant parents were among the elect.

Smyth, like William Smith, Charles Hodge, and the eighteenth-century church of Scotland, flatly rejected this circumspection as extra-scriptural. Smyth noted that in his own time the doctrine of salvation for dead infants of Christian parents was “universally believed by Presbyterians, and those who hold to the doctrine of election, that all dying infants are included among the elect, are made heirs of grace, and become members of the kingdom of heaven.” He noted that he was “not acquainted with any who hold an opposite sentiment.” He admitted that “possibly, when the doctrine is extended to the infants of Heathen parents, some might not be prepared fully to concur in it. But even then, he declared: “that there is ground from Scripture to believe that even they are included in the promises of Divine mercy, and are…all undoubtedly saved, is, I have no doubt, an opinion to which Presbyterians will, generally, subscribe.”[5]

Denial of infant salvation, Smyth warned, placed those of that opinion in the same camp with “some Calvinists, in common with many Arminians of former days…and the Roman Catholic Church.” Smyth addressed particularly the false notion that Presbyterians believed in infant damnation. Smyth noted that far from denying infant salvation, Calvin and his successors rescued the doctrine of God’s voluminous grace and that it extended to dead and unbaptized infants. “The opinion of Calvinists,” Smyth proclaimed, “is now universally in favour of the hope that all children dying in infancy are saved through the merits of Christ's death, applied by the Holy Ghost.” More importantly, this facet of Calvinist theology was not a modern innovation, but traced its roots to the beginning of Calvin’s writings in the Reformation. Calvin, noted Smyth, “was among the very first of the reformers to overthrow the unchristian and most horrible doctrine of the Romish and High-church divines, that no unbaptized infant can be saved.” [6]

Calvin’s intellectual assault on the errors of Medieval Roman Catholicism made infant salvation not merely ornamental, but crucial. Smyth refuted modern caution that the Westminster divines treaded softly on infant salvation. The Standards, he wrote, “wisely, charitably, and scripturally concludes, that this grace is co-extensive with God's electing love and mercy, and is bestowed upon the objects of that love, whether they are removed from this world in a state of infancy, or of maturity.” The Confession “overthrows the doctrine of Romanists, High Church Episcopalians, and others, who teach that this grace of salvation, by the renewing of the Holy Ghost, is tied down and limited—first, by what they most vainly and arrogantly call the only true Church, to wit, the Romanist or Episcopal Churches, and secondly by the ordinances of baptism as administered in these churches.”[7]

Nineteenth-century Presbyterians were, in many ways, more comfortable with grace extending to infants than modern Reformed thinkers. The historical record points to a consensus on infant salvation that stretched across cultural, geographic, and social lines. Smyth and Hodge, for example, disagreed on aspects of churchmanship, but they agreed that Westminster Confession of Faith 10.3 decidedly affirmed Smyth’s argument. Smyth said succinctly, and in bold type, that “Calvinists now universally agree in believing, THAT THERE IS EVERY REASONABLE GROUND TO HOPE THAT ALL INFANTS DYING IN INFANCY ARE INCLUDED IN THE DECREE OF ELECTION AND ARE MADE PARTAKERS OF EVERLASTING LIFE.”[8]


[1] William D. Smith, What is Calvinism? (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1854), 9-10. This book can be found on the Log College Press website here.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895), 1:26-27. This book can be found on the Log College Press website here.

[3] James Henley Thornwell, “The Revised Book Vindicated,” in James B. Adger and John L. Girardeau, eds., Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1871), 4:363-364. This book can be found on the Log College Press website here.

[4] Thomas Smyth, Solace for Bereaved Parents, or Infants Die to Live (New York: Robert Carter, 1848), 1. This book can also be found in Volume 10 of Smyth’s Complete Works on the Log College Press website here.

[5] Smyth, Solace, 26. Emphasis his.

[6] Smyth, Solace, 26.

[7] Smyth, Solace, 36.

[8] Smyth, Solace, 36.

Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the Elder Question

Caleb Cangelosi is an Associate Pastor at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, MS, and the Publisher of Log College Press. He is a graduate of Louisiana State University (BS), Reformed Theological Seminary (MDiv), and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (ThM). The following is adapted from his ThM thesis, which was on the controversy over the call to the ministry in the 19th century Southern Presbyterian Church, and can be found here.

Across the country this year in the denomination in which I serve (the Presbyterian Church in America), men will be set apart to the work of gospel ministry by the hands of other ministers (teaching elders) and the hands of ruling elders laid upon them. More than likely, no one present at these ordination services will think it a strange thing for ruling elders to participate in the ordination of a teaching elder. Yet a quick journey back to America in the 1840s reminds us that the PCA ought not to take for granted the practices and privileges of her current polity.

The “elder question” arose in January of 1841, just a few years after the Old School and New School parties within the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America divided in the face of their ecclesiological and theological differences.[1] From that split of 1837 until the outbreak of Civil War when they were rent asunder sectionally, the Old School Presbyterians, like other denominations of that era, were beset by differing opinions in the areas of church polity.[2] The elder controversy began when the Synod of Indiana’s decision to allow ruling elders to take part in the ordination of ministers was challenged in the religious press. Robert Jefferson Breckinridge engaged the issue, contending for the elder’s right to lay hands on ministers being ordained.[3] At the 1841 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, at which Breckinridge was elected Moderator, the Synod of Indiana put forward an overture recommending that “the question of the office of ruling Elders in ordination, be sent down to the Presbyteries.” The overture was taken up but indefinitely postponed.[4]

In 1842 the matter came back to the Assembly, this time as a communication from the Western District, a presbytery of the Synod of West Tennessee.[5] The Assembly approved the unanimous recommendation of the Committee of Bills and Overtures: that the church should adhere “to the order, and until recently, the uniform practices of our Church on this subject, viz. to allow preaching elders or bishops only to engage in that service [i.e., the ordination of ministers].”[6] The battle began to be waged even more fervently in the lower church courts and in the press, particularly in the Philadelphia Presbyterian, Breckinridge’s Spirit of the XIX Century, and Princeton Seminary’s Biblical Repertory. The West Lexington Presbytery sent a resolution to the 1843 General Assembly, declaring that it believed ruling elders did have the right to unite with ministers in the ordination of ministers. After much debate over several days, the Assembly, by a 138-9 vote, judged, “that neither the Constitution, nor the practice of our Church, authorizes Ruling Elders to impose hands in the ordination of Ministers.” Breckinridge voted with what was a definite minority. At the same Assembly, it was resolved that ruling elders did not have to be present to constitute a quorum of a Presbytery, but “any three ministers of a Presbytery, being regularly convened, are a quorum competent to the transaction of all business, agreeably to the provision contained in the Form of Government, Chap. x. Sec. 7.”[7] On this matter the vote was closer, 83-35, but Breckinridge still found himself in the minority.

At this point Breckinridge and James Henley Thornwell began to correspond regularly about the unfolding controversy. Thornwell wrote “The Ruling Elder a Presbyter,” published first in Breckinridge’s Spirit of the XIX Century. That fall, Breckinridge delivered two arguments before the Synod of Philadelphia: “Presbyterian Government not a Hierarchy, but a Commonwealth” and “Presbyterian Ordination not a Charm, but an Act of Government.”[8] These matters came before the 1844 General Assembly by way of an appeal and complaint by Breckinridge against the Synod of Philadelphia, and overtures from the Presbytery of Cincinnati, Transylvania, South Alabama, and East Alabama, asking the Assembly to reverse its 1843 decision. The Assembly judged that Breckinridge’s complaints and appeals were not permitted by the Constitution to come before the Assembly, and answered the overtures in the negative.[9]

With this decision, the matter was settled with respect to the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Breckinridge was content to “rest his case with providence after continual defeat,” and “never again advocated the divine right of elders in the church courts.”[10] But he never changed his mind about the principles involved:

I thought it my duty to submit unreservedly to the decision of the minority of that body, and other Presbyters, both Preaching and Ruling then present, whose opinions on these great questions coincided, in general, with my own; the line of conduct which it behooved us to adopt in such a case. Their judgment was clear and unanimous, that we were bound, in conscience, to adhere to our principles, to promote them as we had opportunity, and faithfully testifying for them, to await the developments of God’s providence.[11]

 What were the principles for which Breckinridge contended in this debate? Underlying his convictions that ruling elders should be allowed to impose hands in the ordination of ministers, and that ruling elders are necessary for a quorum of a Presbytery, were several key beliefs. First, he held that ruling elders were a constituent part of Presbytery, and therefore had a right to be present at Presbytery, and participate in the act of ordination, which was the work of Presbytery.[12] Second, he held that making ruling elders unnecessary for a quorum or ordination struck at the heart of Presbyterian church government. The representative nature of ruling elders, writes Breckinridge

is an essential element of Presbyterianism: destroy this, and the entire system perished. This is the element that distinctly separates it from prelacy on the one hand, and congregationalism on the other. Admit the principle that the ministry may, without the presence of any representative of God's people, transact the business of the people, and you lay our glorious system of representative republicanism in ruins: and over those ruins you may easily pave a highway to prelacy and popery.[13]

 There were many more arguments made by Breckinridge, Thornwell, and those on their side, but most fundamentally, their views on the ruling elder flowed out of their belief that Presbyterianism was jure divino, by divine right: “[T]he order of [Christ’s] house is not a question left to us – but it is one distinctly settled by himself.” Jesus had prescribed the government for his church:

The Lord Jesus Christ is King in Zion; the whole model and working of his kingdom are matters of revelation; the complete execution of the mission of his church is absolutely impossible, until she puts away all carnal devices and puts on the whole armour of light; and we have no more warrant from God to make a church government for him and in his name – than to make any other part of his religion. It is idle to talk about church government being jure divino, in its great principles and not in its details; or as they say, in the abstract and not in the concrete. The truth is, it is both: for not only are the great principles laid down for us, but the officers and courts are named; the nature and duties of the one, the qualifications, vocation, and powers of the other, are set forth; the relations of all the parts to each other and to the whole are precisely set forth. A government, in general – the kind of government in particular – the officers and courts in special – their duties and powers in detail: this is what God has set before us, by revelation, for the Christian church.[14]

 From these principles, Breckinridge argued for the rights of ruling elders.

Ironically, it would be the Southern Presbyterian Church after the Civil War which would finally codify the position of Breckinridge on ruling elders. This issue no longer agitates the church, as the Presbyterian churches in America have essentially settled the question satisfactorily for themselves in a variety of directions. Yet engaging the debate of the 1840s is important and helpful as we continue to think through the role of ruling elders in the life of the church and the true nature of Presbyterianism.


               1. For more on the Old School – New School split, see George Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (1970; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003); James Wood, Old and New Theology (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1845); and Peter J. Wallace, “The Bond of Union: The Old School Presbyterian Church and the American Nation, 1837-1861” (PhD diss., Notre Dame University, 2004), accessed February 1, 2018, http://www.peterwallace.org/dissertation.

                2. See Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1963), 1:510ff.; Luder G. Whitlock, Jr., “Elders and Ecclesiology in the Thought of James Henley Thornwell,” Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 1 (Fall 1974): 45. For Breckinridge’s views on the connection between the division of 1837 and the ruling elder controversy, see Edgar Caldwell Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” Affirmation 6, no. 2 (Fall 1993): 73-74.

                3. Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 76. Mayse opines, “Although it would not be fair to call the elder question ‘a controversy of Breckinridge’s personal creation’ [quoting Elwyn Smith, The Presbyterian Minister in American Culture, 176], it is certain that the dispute would never have achieved its prominence and bitterness had the Baltimore pastor decided to confine his polemical attacks to the Catholics and abolitionists.” Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 76. For more on the ruling elder controversy, see Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (1875; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 251ff.; Whitlock, “Elders and Ecclesiology in the Thought of James Henley Thornwell,” 44-56; Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, 1:516ff.; Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 73-88; Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge: American Presbyterian Controversialist” (ThD diss., Union Theological Seminary, 1974), 356-439; John Lloyd Vance, “The Ecclesiology of James Henley Thornwell” (PhD diss., Drew University, 1990), 194-208; and Mark R. Brown, ed., Order in the Offices (Duncansville, PA: Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 1993), especially the article therein by Iain Murray, “Ruling Elders – a Sketch of a Controversy,” 157-168.

                4. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1841), 447. Mayse writes that Breckinridge was not in the Assembly hall when these votes were taken, but when he returned he was able to convince the members to reconsider their vote. Due to time constraints, the issue was referred to the next Assembly. Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 77. I was not able to find these actions in the Minutes of the Assembly, but it is possible that Breckinridge mentions them in the newspaper articles he published during the controversy, to which I do not have access. Cf. Palmer, Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, 254.

                5. Whitlock, “Elders and Ecclesiology in the Thought of James Henley Thornwell,” 46; Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 77-80.

                6. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1842), 16.

                7. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1843), 183, 196, cf. 190.

  8. This article can be found in Thornwell, Collected Writings (1873; repr., Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2004), 4:115ff. Breckinridge’s addresses were subsequently published together with a sermon that catalyzed another controversy over the call to the ministry, “The Christian Pastor, One of the Ascension Gifts of Christ.” See Robert Nickols Watkin, “The Forming of the Southern Presbyterian Minister: From Calvin to the American Civil War” (PhD diss., Vanderbilt University, 1969), 374n30. For the correspondence between Thornwell and Breckinridge, see Palmer, Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, 251ff. Charles Hodge of Princeton and Thomas Smyth of Charleston, SC, were two primary opponents of the position of Thornwell and Breckinridge. Hodge’s arguments can be found, among other places, in “The Rights of Ruling Elders,” Princeton Review 15, No. 2 (April 1843), 313ff.; and What is Presbyterianism? (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1855). Smyth’s writing on the subject are found in Complete Works of Rev. Thomas Smyth, D.D., Volume 4 (Columbia, SC: The R. L. Bryan Company, 1908).

                9. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1844), 352, 362, 364, 366, 370-371.

                10. Mayse, “Robert Jefferson Breckinridge and the ‘Elder Question’,” 83.

                11. Robert J. Breckinridge, The Christian Pastor, One of the Ascension Gifts of Christ (Baltimore, MD: D. Owen & Son, 1845), 4. Through this sermon, and the footnotes in the published edition, Breckinridge gives his commentary on the way the controversy played out. He was clearly upset at how the Princeton Seminary party in particular treated him, and had little patience for their arguments.

                12. Breckinridge, The Christian Pastor, 38n19. See also the protest written by Breckinridge in Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1843), 199.

                13. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia: The Stated Clerk, 1843), 199-200. Emphasis his.

                14. Breckinridge, The Christian Pastor, 43-44.